I was staying with Louise and Risteard on Thursday 19th February, 2010. I had addressed Davy Charity Fund dinner on the previous day which was my brother Johnny’s birthday and I happened to see a copy of his book Firedrake in my room. I was heading for Waterford to give a seminar at Grace-Dieu for Finola Cunnane.
Risteard said I should visit Jerpoint Abbey which was on my way. A Cistercian Abbey founded in the second half of the 12th century. This triggered a memory that St Nicholas was meant to have been buried there. The Normans had brought his remains when founding this monastery. I arrived at Jerpoint and asked the two women at the interpretative centre where Santa Claus was buried. They said – he is not here but he is buried in Newtown Jerpoint which is a few miles away. First turn right after the Abbey on the way towards Waterford. The graveyard is on private lands but the farmer will let you in if you tell him we sent you. I could not find the place they suggested and drove on. Then something made me turn back. I found a B&B called Old Town Farmhouse and asked the lady of the house where Santa Claus was buried. She said ‘We’re all Normans here!’ Her name was Fitzgerald. She said they had all heard this rumour but thought it was a myth. She told me to drive past the entrance to Mount Juliet and there I would find on the left a gateway to Newtown where the graveyard was situated. The farm was called Belmore House and it had recently been acquired by ‘a very nice man.’ I rang the intercom at the gate and a voice told me to enter their avenue and take the first field road on the right and walk over that field to the ruined church and graveyard. I did this and found the most beautiful little church with the graveyard overlooked by Jerpoint Abbey. I came across a stone grave slab which was broken but had three ancient figures on it and I knew that St Nicholas was there. It was one of those moments.
I later googled and found: ‘According to local Irish legend, Saint Nicholas is buried in County Kilkenny. The grave is said to be in the ruined Church of St Nicholas. The church is all that remains of the medieval village, Newtown Jerpoint, that fell to ruin by the 17th century. The village surrounded the Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey, founded in 1183. Located on 1,880 acres, the abbey had its own gardens, watermills, cemetery, granary, and kitchens. It served as a launching point for Irish-Norman Crusaders from Kilkenny. The abbey was disolved in 1540.
The ruined church is now found on privately held farm land. Located to the west of the abbey, the church has an unusual grave slab with an image of a cleric, thought to be a bishop, and two other heads. The cleric is said to be St Nicholas and the heads, the two crusaders who, so the story goes, brought Nicholas’ remains back to Ireland. Though the church dates from 1170, the grave slab appears to be from the 1300s.
The tale tells of a band of Irish-Norman knights from Jerpoint, traveling to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. On retreat, as they headed home to Ireland, they seized St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Kilkenny, where the bones were buried.
Evidence lends some possible credence to this tale as the Normans in Kilkenny were keen collectors of religious relics—possibly even more so than the Italians. And it is known that Norman knights from Kilkenny participated in the Holy Land Crusades.’
Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman
Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick